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Citizens are Key in the Fight Against Corruption

Amer Lashin's picture
Also available in: العربية

Corruption is a frequently used word. But what is the exact definition of corruption? Is it the abuse of office or is it the absence of laws penalizing and preventing it? Does it mean a lack of enforcement of laws or the absence of justice altogether?

Although there are plenty of definitions of corruption, I will only share my view, with emphasis on how ordinary citizens perceive it. Such a view has been shaped over years of experience in the field of development in Egypt at various levels, and in many sectors and institutions.

Corruption, as officially defined, is associated with the misuse of power. There is a general consensus on this definition among ordinary citizens, as many believe that those in public office at all levels misuse their positions for personal gain or to serve a few individuals rather than the whole of society.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of laws, statutes and decrees that are supposed to prevent the misuse of public office for personal gain. Therein lies the problem: there are 54,000 laws, regulations and statues that are supposed to govern the relations between citizens and various state institutions, that create both an enabling environment for  and a line of defense against, corrupt practices.

The double standards and inconsistencies in many laws provide public officials with loopholes to escape legal liability.  In some cases, the laws enable the enactment of decisions that address  the demands of  marginalized segments of  society. Some call this the "positive side of corruption". This, in turn, creates a culture of tolerance for corruption among ordinary citizens; as a way of ensuring needs are met, be it by illicit means or otherwise. 

Corruption is ultimately associated with state institutions that, as some might argue, marginalize the roles of other state sectors, i.e. civil society, private sector, and media. Yet, these sectors have also been afflicted by corruption in a number of different ways. It is evident in their identification of development priorities, the choice of sectors they operate in, and the resources they draw on under the pretext of ‘citizen driven’ development.

Corruption permeates the entire society; used by the few, in whichever social sector they operate, who have the power, influence, information and money. Some attribute this to the lack of efficiency and effectiveness in the use of resources, which in turn affects the outcome of and returns on development for ordinary citizens.

Moreover, the state's endeavors, taken in reaction to citizens’ discontent, have been driven by the views of its experts on how to deal with the root causes of corruption. As a result, the state has amended the laws and regulations, adopted the private sector governance methods and mechanisms, and, finally, established anti-corruption commissions to review performance and hold corrupt officials accountable. That said, some argue that the problem with the commissions is that they are not independent of the government.

In practice, these efforts have neither improved performance nor minimized corruption, and have not increased citizen satisfaction with state institutions. Many think that this was due to a lack of citizen engagement in the process designed to identify the root causes of corruption, and more importantly, the lack of popular input  on how to tackle these causes. This lack of input has had a negative impact on citizen confidence, which was already mistrustful of all sectors and the fight against corruption.   

Strengthening the role of citizens and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)

It is necessary therefore to adopt a different mechanism and approach to fighting corruption that widely and genuinely seeks to streamline “citizen engagement” in all steps and stages. Ordinary citizens should all have a way of providing input to the process. Their opinions should not only be listened to, but also respected and acted upon.

The main challenge here is how to engage citizens. In this regard, the CSOs should have an important role to play. They should seek to improve their performance, and to represent and advocate for ordinary citizens and ensure their voices are well heard and respected. They should not restrict their focus to service delivery alone.

However, since there are 40,000 CSOs in Egypt, it may be difficult to hear them, as they do not speak with a coherent voice.  The media could play an important role by shedding light on the efforts of civil society, and ensuring that citizens’ voices are heard and responded to.

We therefore conclude that focusing on preventing and fighting government corruption alone is not enough, as corruption has affected all sectors of society. Fighting corruption is a multifaceted and complicated process requiring synergy among all sectors. It is especially important that all sectors of society recognize and assume their responsibilities toward the ordinary citizen. Corruption has undermined the rights of citizens, and they cannot afford to wait any longer to reclaim them.

* The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank